Reviews Round-Up

The critics' verdicts on Jonathan Sacks, Simon Mawer and Andrew Blum.

The Great Partnership: God, Science and the Search for Meaning by Jonathan Sacks

The purpose of Jonathan Sacks’s book is not to prove the existence of God, writes Ziauddin Sardar in the Independent, but to demonstrate that it is “quite possible for a rational person to hold religious beliefs”. With “extensive erudition”, Sacks tours the sacred texts of Judaism and Christianity and addresses the thoughts of atheists and philosophers in his quest to promote tolerance and challenge religious dogma, which he sees as a primary cause of evil in the world.

Sack’s central argument, that the meaning of a system must lie outside that system, is problematic, says Sardar: “It is easier to argue for the need for something beyond, more difficult to argue for a deity… It would have been more original to argue why God is needed in the first place.” The message that science and religion, explanation and meaning, are complementary is also unoriginal: “Sacks is rather unfamiliar with the rich heritage of Islamic discourse on reason and revelation,” says Sardar.

The exploration of classical Greek and Hebrew thought, though, is “quite brilliant”. Sacks makes “mincemeat” of the “primary school” arguments of militant atheists like Richard Dawkins, says Sardar. And he shows “courage and integrity” on the problems of institutionalised religion: “the warning about the entrapments of power and the need for humility will not sit easily with his colleagues – here in Britain and in Israel. That, in my opinion, only enhances his stature.”

Writing in the Guardian, Richard Holloway agrees: “The compelling thing about Sacks is the passion with which he insists that only God can save us from the tragedy of nothingness.”

The book’s Wittgensteinian argument that “the universe cannot mean itself, only that which lies outside it” leads to an “awkward place”, admits Holloway. For Sacks, the fate of civilization lies in its answer to the God question: while "individuals can live without meaning, societies in the long run cannot". He thus makes the “large claim” that only God can supply the meaning we need. But “what makes Sacks such an attractive combatant in today's wars of religion is the passion with which he engages in the conflict,” says Holloway. “His argument may not persuade, but his passion almost does.”

 

The Girl Who Fell From the Sky by Simon Mawer

Simon Mawer’s novel about a bilingual girl recruited into the Special Operations Executive, the Second World War European spy network in which 39 women operated, is not without precedent, writes Alex Preston in last week’s New Statesman. Echoes of Sebastian Faulks’s Charlotte Gray abound as Marian Sutro, Mawer’s heroine, leaves her francophone childhood and embarks on a life of danger and excitement as “Alice”, a secret agent dropped into south-western France. The “conceit of nomenclature males the reading of what would otherwise be a fairly straightforward book more difficult and interesting,” says Preston. It forces us to “think about our own role, as readers, in the construction of these simulcra of real people.”

Writing in the Telegraph, Philip Womack calls the book “slick and thrilling and grown-up, like a slightly seedy uncle who smokes, drinks whisky and is always off seeing a man about a dog.” A spy is not necessarily an attractive protagonist, he says, but Mawer “gives us some compelling insights into Sutro – above all, her bravery, and her almost elemental need for risk, as when she jumps out of the plane.” The writing is “smoothly sophisticated” and “full of well-observed phrases,” he says.

“Mawer's wartime textures are extraordinary,” agrees Rachel Cooke in the Guardian: “no page ever reeks of the library; his set pieces are so beautiful you want to read them two or three times over.” While The Girl Who Fell from the Sky cannot match Mawer’s Man Booker-nominated novel The Glass Room, it is “beautifully done”, the precision at times rendering the author “more cartographer than novelist”. The heroine would have been more interesting had she not been “predictably beautiful”, says Cooke. But the overriding message is one of hope: “as numinous as faith, and twice as powerful… you apprehend its loss even as the strange ecstasy of it drives you on.”

 

Tubes: Behind the Scenes at the Internet by Andrew Blum

“The answer to what the internet is,” writes Helen Lewis in last week’s New Statesman, “is cables – and what’s inside them, which is pulses of light flashing a million times a second.” In Tubes: Behind the Scenes at the Internet Andrew Blum journeys across Milwaukee, Texas, Wisconsin, Frankfurt, Amsterdam and even Cornwall to satisfy his curiosity about the internet after a squirrel chewed through his broadband cable, slowing his connection. He wants to know: what happens when you send an email? Where is your Facebook page when you’re not looking at it? What exactly is the world wide web?

Blum sees cables that join together, speeding up the US internet by a fraction, cables that run under the sea, cables in underground hoses in New York. We “occasionally stray close to a good anecdote,” says Lewis. The “sloppily dressed” man who sparked terrorism fears when he appeared at a data centre in Oregon in 2004 requesting huge amounts of data turned out to be an employee from Google. The company is fiercely private as rivals are desperate for information about its engineering.

The most important question raised by the book, though, is never asked, says Lewis. There are mentions of the precariousness of the internet – an engineer from Texas-based Nanog (North American Network Operators’ Group) admits he once cut off Australia because it didn’t pay its phone bill. But if the web is so fragile and so vital, are we doing enough to protect it? “As we put ever more of our lives into ‘the cloud’,” she asks, “are we sure it’s safe there?”

Google's computer centre in the Dalles, Oregon (Photo: Craig Mitchelldyer/Getty Images)
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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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